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Discovering a Goddess, Aaron Demsky, BAR 24:05, Sep-Oct 1998.

biblical-ekrons-temple-complex-650A new look at the Ekron inscription identifies a mysterious deity

In 1996, in the final season of the 13-year excavation of Tel Miqne, excavators discovered a monumental inscription that is surely one of the most sensational finds of the 1990s. It is a royal dedicatory inscription that mentions Ekron, thus pinning down the ancient name of Tel Miqne and confirming what had long been suspected- The site was one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis mentioned in the Bible (the other four being Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza and Gath). But the inscription also has much to tell us about Philistine culture in the land of Canaan.

The inscription was promptly published by the excavators, Seymour Gitin of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and Trude Dothan of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in association with the noted paleographer Joseph Naveh, also of Hebrew University.1 The drawing of the inscription was made by Jerusalem paleographer Ada Yardeni.

The text is stunning, and its publication is meticulous. But the suggestion that the inscription is dedicated to a hitherto unknown Greek goddess named Ptgdyh (perhaps pronounced Pata-Gea), is wrong. Professor Naveh has misread a single letter that makes all the difference.

I believe that the inscription is, in fact, dedicated to Potnia, the generic “divine mistress,” a title that may, in this case, refer to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. The difference in the two readings is crucial to understanding what the inscription has to tell us about the way Philistines acculturated to local Canaanite society.

The inscription was found in a building remarkable in itself. It is one of the largest Iron Age structures ever to be excavated in Israel or Jordan—185 feet long and nearly 125 feet wide. The building, named Temple Complex 650 by the excavators, was entered on the south side, where the excavators found a threshold and a pair of doorpost sockets for heavy double doors, which once opened onto a huge open courtyard with small rooms on every side except the west. A doorway in the western side of the courtyard led to a long narrow throne room or reception hall. At the southern end of this room was a set of steps leading up to a raised mudbrick platform or throne.

In the western wall of the throne room, directly opposite the entrance, was the entrance to another large hall, a temple sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary, on either side of the entrance, was a large stone vat. The excavators suggest that these may have been used for ritual ablutions. However, they may have been containers for donations given upon crossing the threshold of the temple, as in 2 Chronicles 24-8–9- “So the king gave command and they made a chest, and set it outside the gate of the house of the Lord. A proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to bring in for the Lord the tax that Moses the servant of God laid on Israel in the wilderness.”

Two rows of four columns once lent an air of grandeur to the temple hall, but only the column bases have survived. At the western end of the sanctuary, between the last two columns, is a raised stone threshold, behind which was the temple’s cella, or principal focus, which was at least partially paved with stones.

The newly discovered inscription, carved on a rectangular stone block that weighs approximately 220 pounds, was found near the corner of the cella. The excavators suggest that it may originally have been part of the wall at the end of the cella, which would have made it the focus of the temple, maybe even of the entire temple complex. The inscription, which measures almost exactly 2 feet across and a little over 15 inches from top to bottom, records the dedication of the temple to its patron goddess, whose identity we shall discuss later.

Lest there be any doubt as to the cultic nature of what we have been calling the temple or sanctuary, the room’s function has been confirmed by the presence of several diverse artifacts associated with religious rituals, including a bell-shaped figurine found next to the inscription. Also found in the cella were a bronze scepter, unspecified (and as yet unpublished) ivory and iron objects, and a number of ceramic vessels. Near a side entrance to the sanctuary (in the south wall), gold and silver earrings were found. In a side room of the sanctuary (Room P), the archaeologists found a statuette of a baboon and hundreds of storage jars. Another side room (Room O) held an installation for producing olive oil, perhaps for use in ritual ceremonies. An ivory female figurine and another ivory object carved with a cartouche of Ramesses VIII (mid-12th century B.C.E.) were found in Rooms V and W. The list goes on and on- gold, silver, bronze and ivory artifacts and fragments. The only object that has been published from this rich collection is a 9-inch-long golden Egyptian cobra, pictured in the January/February 1996 BAR (see “Prize Find- Golden Cobra From Ekron’s Last Days,” BAR 22-01).

The entire complex was covered with debris from the final destruction of Philistine Ekron in 603 B.C.E. by the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who went on to destroy Jerusalem and its Temple soon thereafter, in 586 B.C.E.

The monumental Ekron inscription is dated, stratigraphically and historically, to the first half of the seventh century B.C.E. The five lines of the inscription are enclosed in an incised border (except on the bottom, where the border is broken of). And, mirabile dictu, the inscription itself is both complete and, for the most part, very readable. The words are separated by word dividers in the form of dots. A drawing of the inscription, as provided in the official publication, and my English translation in “The Ekron Inscription.”

The text is extraordinary in many ways, as the Ekron archaeological team rightly points out. The temple, the inscription tells us, was built by Achish, son of Padi, son of Ysd, son of ’Ada’, son of Ya‘ir, ruler of Ekron. Both Achish and Padi are known from Assyrian records as kings of Ekron. Achish, or as the Assyrians pronounced his name, Ikausu, is one of the kings who provided building materials for the palace of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.E.) in Nineveh.2 Achish also participated in an Assyrian military campaign led by Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.) against Egypt in 667 B.C.E.3 Although he is identified in the Assyrian sources as king, in the Ekron inscription Achish bears the title sar, which can be translated “ruler” or “mayor.” The official publication of the inscription suggests that the use of sar may indicate that this title expresses the vassal’s loyalty to his Assyrian overlord—or more probably that the word means “king” in a Philistine-Canaanite dialect.

Achish’s father, Padi, is also referred to as king of Ekron in an Assyrian text. Padi was taken prisoner by Hezekiah during the latter’s revolt against Sennacherib (705–701 B.C.E.).4 Now, with the help of the Ekron inscription, we can add three more, earlier rulers to the Philistine dynasty that ruled Ekron in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.—Ysd, ’Ada’ and Ya‘ir.

The name Achish is especially interesting because it is the name of a Philistine ruler of Gath mentioned in the Bible. When David fled from the wrath of King Saul, he joined the company of Achish of Gath (1 Samuel 21-11, 27-2). This Achish is of course not the same as the one referred to in the inscription- The Biblical Achish of Gath ruled in about 1000 B.C.E.; the Achish referred to in the Ekron inscription and in the Assyrian records is his seventh-century B.C.E. namesake. The continuity in names over more than three centuries may indicate that Ekron was the heir of neighboring Gath’s territory and culture.a

The Ekron temple is dedicated, according to Naveh’s reading of the new inscription, to a hitherto unknown goddess named Ptg̣yh. (The goddess’s name is highlighted in Yardeni’s drawing of the inscription below.) We are told that this is “surely the name of a goddess of non-Semitic origin.” Perhaps, Naveh speculates, she was a Philistine or Indo-European goddess.

It is here that the publication goes off track—on two counts. Semantically, Ptg̣yh does not make much sense. (But reading the last three letters as Gea, or “[Mother] Earth,” is possible.) More importantly, I believe the correct reading of the inscription is not Ptġyh, but Pt[n]yh. The difference, though only one letter, is important. If I am right, the goddess, although called by a Greek name or title, may be Semitic.

Naveh and Yardeni admit that the middle letter of the name, gimel (g), is uncertain. They place a dot over this letter in their transcription of the inscription- This is the standard scholarly siglum indicating that the letter cannot be identified confidently. Professor Gitin graciously allowed me to examine the actual inscription so that I might draw my own conclusions.

The box below compares Naveh’s interpretation of the name with mine. If the letter in question is a gimel, it is indeed a minuscule one, as Dr. Yardeni’s drawing shows. It consists, in the paleographer’s drawing, of two lines, the left one slightly curved and the right one vertical, like this- Picture. My own examination indicates that the left line is in fact straight and that the supposed right line is nothing but a spur on the left line and not a real line at all, like this-Picture. That being the case, I would suggest that what we have here is simply an aborted letter. The scribe began to inscribe a letter but then stopped for some reason. Perhaps there was an imperfection in the stone, or the scribe was hesitant about the spelling, or there was some outside distraction. That he was a little confused at this point in the engraving is indicated by the fact that a dot, or word divider, appears after the yod (y), under the heh (h); and another dot appears after the heh. The word divider under the heh suggests that the scribe was not sure how to spell the word. Perhaps he thought the yod (y) was the last letter in the word, so he placed a word divider after it, then, thinking better of it, added the heh, followed by another word divider.

One possibility, therefore, is simply to ignore the aborted letter that Naveh reads as a gimel, on the assumption that the scribe started over again. If we ignore the aborted letter, the name reads Ptyh, possibly a local (Canaanite) transliteration of the Greek Pytheie (Artemis), the sister of the Pythion Apollo of Delphi. Inscriptions dedicated to Pytheie have been found, but they come from a much later period.5

My own opinion, however, is that the scribe simply failed to complete the letter after making the short straight line. If completed, the letter would look like this- Picture. A nun, not a gimel! What we see in the inscription is merely the uppermost left stroke and a small downward stroke of the nun.

The more likely reading of the name, then, is Pt[n]yh, with a nun, which in Canaanite letters spells the Greek title or personal name Potnia, meaning “mistress” or “lady,” the formal title used for various goddesses in archaic Greek and Minoan and Mycenaean writings dating back to the Late Bronze Age. The root pot means “lord” or “master,” as in despot. Potnia is simply the feminine form, which sometimes accompanies the name of a particular goddess.

For example, in the Iliad, Homer refers to “Lady Athene (Potni’ Athenain), our city’s defender” (Iliad 6.305). Here it is used as a title. Elsewhere in the Iliad (12.470), the poet speaks of Artemis as the “Mistress of wild beasts” (Potnia theron).

Incidentally, Athena was the goddess who protected the palace of the Mycenaean king. In Ekron, Potnia protected the temple of the king.

Sometimes Potnia/Mistress becomes a proper name of veneration (as a title), like Madonna, and refers to a particular goddess without actually mentioning her name. This is the case in the Linear B inscriptions from Knossos on Crete and from Pylos in the Peleponnesus.6 Often the patron goddess of a city is simply referred to as Potnia, instead of by her real name.7

If this is the case here, Potnia may refer to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. A number of small idols in the shape of a seated female deity (“Ashdodah”) that may represent the Philistine adoption of the Canaanite deity Asherah have been found at Philistine sites in Canaan, including Ekron. Furthermore, a seventh-century B.C.E. jar bearing the inscription “holy to the goddess Asherat” (qdš l’ašrt) was found at Ekron.

Instead of being unknown, like the supposed divine name Ptg̣yh, Potnia is widely used in contemporaneous Greek literature—90 times in Homeric epics and hymns dating to the eighth century B.C.E. It is found 6 times in the writings of the Greek poet Hesiod, who flourished around 800 B.C.E., and more than 40 times in inscriptions dating from the sixth to the third century B.C.E.

The Philistines were one of the so-called Sea Peoples. They probably came from the Greek mainland or Aegean coastlands. With bases in Crete and Cyprus, they settled on the coast of Canaan in the 12th century B.C.E. Their origin in the Aegean area is supported by the Bible and by archaeological evidence. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Amos, speaking the words of the Lord, intones, “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor” (Amos 9-7). Similarly Jeremiah- “For the Lord will ravage the Philistines, the remnant from the island of Caphtor” (Jeremiah 47-4).

Caphtor is the traditional Biblical designation for the home of the Philistines. The name is traditionally associated with Crete. It appears in early second-millennium B.C.E. Akkadian sources as Kaptara. In Ugaritic mythology it is the home of the god Kothar. In Egyptian sources it appears as Kaftaiu.

The tradition regarding the Philistines’ Aegean origins was kept alive for at least 500 years, from the 12th century B.C.E. until the end of the seventh century B.C.E., the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah. Those scholars who deny the veracity of oral history and collective national memory when discussing Israel’s early history should take note of this archaeologically verified tradition.

The origins of the Philistines is reflected in their pottery, which includes a heavy dose of imported Mycenaean ware (more specifically, Mycenaean IIIC-1b), which also served as models for local copies. In short, the Philistines maintained their Aegean cultural ties.

On the other hand, we have considerable evidence of Philistine acculturation in the land of Canaan. The names of some of their kings are recognizably Canaanite- Abimelech, king of Gerar; Zelba’l king of Gaza; Azuri and his brother Ahimot of Ashdod; and several kings of Ashkelon.

The exception is Achish, the tenth-century B.C.E. Philistine king of Gath to whom David fled, and his seventh-century namesake, who is mentioned in the Ekron inscription. Achish is sometimes connected to the Homeric Anchises, king of Troy. Naveh proposes that the name Achish/Ikausu is derived from Achaean (‘Achaios), and means “Greek.” In either event, it is not a Semitic name.
Other evidence of Canaanite acculturation is reflected in the Philistine worship not only of Asherah, as suggested above, but also of the Philistine gods mentioned in the Bible who were Canaanite in origin- Dagon is one. Another is Ba‘alzebub, “Lord of the Fly,” sometimes amended to Ba‘al-zebul, “Exalted Baal,” a local Canaanite god with a Semitic name.

Still other evidence of Canaanite acculturation can be found in the inscription itself. The word after Potnia (in line 3) is adatoh, which is translated “his lady” or “his mistress.” This is good Canaanite. The word appears in a number of inscriptions from Byblos.8 It is the feminine form of ‘adon, meaning “lord” or “master.”

Zephaniah (2-4–6), the late-seventh-century B.C.E. prophet, captures the duality of Philistine identity when he refers to the residents of Ekron and other Philistine towns on the Mediterranean as “Cherethites”—a term derived from the name Crete—but calls Canaan the land of the Philistines-

Indeed Gaza shall be deserted

And Ashkelon desolate

Ashdod’s people shall be expelled in broad daylight,

And Ekron shall be uprooted.

Ah, nation of Cherethites

Who inhabit the seacoast!

There is a word of the Lord against you,

O Canaan, land of the Philistines-

I will lay you waste

Without inhabitants.

The seacoast Cheroth shall become

An abode for shepherds and folds for flocks.

Here, too, we find evidence of the Philistines assimilating the Canaanite world while retaining traces of their Aegean origins and identity. This duality is clearly reflected in the royal dedicatory inscription from Ekron, the earliest documentation of Greek in ancient Canaan. The divine patroness of the temple in which the inscription was found is identified with a Greek name, Potnia. But the language of the inscription is a Philisto-South-Canaanite dialect, and the very letters of the Greek name are Canaanite.

a. This summer, Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Land of Israel Studies, under the direction of Aren Maeir and Adrian Boas, conducted its second season of excavations at Tel es-Safi, which is generally identified as Philistine Gath.

1. Seymour Gitin, Trude Dothan and Joseph Naveh, “A Royal Dedicatory Inscription from Ekron,” Israel Exploration Journal 47 (1997), p. 1ff. See also Aaron Demsky, “The Name of the Goddess of Ekron- A New Reading,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 25 (1997), pp. 1–5.

2. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET), 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 291.

3. Klaus Tuchelt, “Didyma,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 5 vols. (New York- Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), vol. 2, pp. 159–161.

3. Pritchard, ANET, p. 294.

4. Pritchard, ANET, p. 287.

5. Klaus Tuchelt, “Didyma,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 5 vols. (New York- Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), vol. 2, pp. 159–161.

6. Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 126f, 289, 311.

7. Chadwick, “Potnia,” in Minos, vol. 5 (1957), pp. 122–123.

8. Herbert Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften (Wiesbaden, 1964), nos. 4, 6, 7.

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